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Amid restaurant labor shortages, an apprenticeship program pairs young people with restaurants that need help

A young woman wearing glasses and a black mask, T-shirt, apron and gloves stands in front of a rotisserie grill in an industrial kitchen, holding up a cooked chicken.
Courtesy of Chook Charcoal Chicken
Daniella Fernandez, a food industry apprentice at Chook Charcoal Chicken through the Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship program.

From retention to hiring, a range of industries continue to face staffing issues due to COVID-19, like early childhood education, trash management and restaurants. Restaurants alone accounted for nearly 10% of the state’s labor force prior to the pandemic.

Since the pandemic began, restaurants and the workers who keep them running have been hit hard. According to a report out last year from the Colorado Restaurant Association, nearly 77,000 restaurant workers had lost their jobs and were still out of work, and as much as 40% of the state’s restaurants are in danger of closing.

An apprenticeship program in four states, including Colorado, is helping to connect young people interested in the restaurant industry with restaurants, providing an alternative career pathway for students and, in theory, some solutions to the challenges restaurants are facing.

To learn more about the Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship program, we speak with Daniella Fernandez, a recent high school graduate and apprentice through RYRA at Chook Charcoal Chicken, a local chicken restaurant with three locations around the Denver metro area. We also speak with Elizabeth Nicholson, Chook’s chief operating officer.

I host and produce KUNC’s in-depth, regional newsmagazine Colorado Edition, which has me searching across our state for peculiar and impactful stories to bring to listeners, always with a focus on empowering the people who hear our show and speaking through them to our guests. I am also a big nerd about field recording and audio editing, my dedication to which I hope serves our listeners who care about audio as much as I do.
As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.